The Forecaster

DREW HARDESTY SLIDES HIS SKIS from the back of his pickup, the dome light above illuminating his face, giving his bearded visage a wizened look. He is quick, efficient. It is clear from his movements that this is a routine so often repeated it has become habit. Skis, poles, pack. Check. Drew glances around the parking lot, already filling with cars in the predawn light, and walks to the trailhead, stepping into his bindings. Click click.

The soft, rhythmic swoosh of skis is interrupted every now and then as Drew pauses to inspect the snow. His melodic voice is low as he muses on what he sees, its quiet tones matching the mood of the morning. He gestures up the mountain, contemplating what he expects to find higher. And then he’s off again. Watching Drew move uphill, it would be easy to imagine that he is moving across flat ground, his steps brisk and precise. As he reaches the top of Toledo Bowl, before the sun has fully risen, he points across to Mt. Superior. A heli group has landed on top, and a single skier is arcing down the pristine run.

Despite the silence of the morning, Drew is not alone in the mountains. No one is, and the presence of this skier makes that reality strikingly clear. Drew knows, maybe better than anyone, that we all accept a shared risk in the backcountry, whether consciously or unconsciously. As the skier on Superior curves downward, Drew cannot know if he has followed the snowpack this season, if he’s aware of other skiers above and below him or even if he has his beacon turned on.

As Drew watches the skier’s run, the deep smile lines along his blue eyes crinkle, and he laughs, because at heart, he is in love with the mountains and with skiing. It is Drew’s love for these mountains that his driven him to develop and champion a code of ethics for backcountry users. As, each year, the number of backcountry users rapidly expands, the level of risk increases. And Drew knows that we sit at the edge of a precipice. For him, establishing a clear set of expectations is imperative to the future of the backcountry. And as such, his livelihood, and his life, depend on it.
THE FIRST TIME DREW ever wore a pair of skis, he was in Kentucky. “I’m surprised I didn’t break both of my legs,” he remembers of the day. The sticks had been his father’s in college, and that day, the father and son took turns riding the family horse while it pulled the other behind. “At the time, we didn’t know that was called skijoring. We just thought it was good country fun.”

Drew did not immediately fall in love with skiing that first day in Kentucky. Instead, it wasn’t until he went to college that he discovered his passion for skiing and the mountains. Now, Drew lives his life in tune with the snow, following it as it falls each autumn and living alongside it all winter until it melts again each spring. He spends his summers in the mountains of Wyoming, working as a Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger. Each winter he returns to Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, where he works as an avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, one of the first avalanche centers in North America. For Drew, stumbling upon his careers was like finding a soul mate, and it’s a lifestyle he wouldn’t give up. “I feel very strongly that this lifestyle of the mountains resonates for me. I couldn’t imagine any other life without the mountains year round.”

But the work is not all powder lines and hero shots. Forecasters are out every day, regardless of the conditions. “The goal every time is to come back to the car, come back to my family at the end of the day.”

"I couldn’t imagine any other life
without the mountains."

The art and the science
The art and the science The art and the science The art and the science
DREW'S HOME IS COMFORTABLE and unassuming; a two-story bungalow set a short ways back from the street. Immediately upon entering, visitors are greeted by a wall-size map of Alaska, a place close to Drew’s heart and where he got his start as a forecaster. You can see the Wasatch from the front windows. And on the fridge and the walls hang the trappings of a family man: snapshots of Drew and his son, Wyatt, on a raft trip down the Green River, preschool scribblings now fading at the edges, a soccer game announcement. Wyatt is an only child. He’s 13 now, a pivotal age.

“I subscribe to the parenting school of dirty fingernails and bloody knees; the school of experiential education,” Drew says. “I’ve taken Wyatt on the rivers and in the deserts and on the mountains to see the lessons that are out there. Sometimes they’re not immediately apparent. But they can be embedded within your soul.”

Before Wyatt was two, Drew strapped a pair of skis to his tiny snow boots. The two would spend mornings walking, and then slowly sliding, across the corduroy at Alta, just a stone’s throw from the uncontrolled peaks that Drew patrols throughout the winter. The pair took more than a few hot chocolate breaks. But now, the stakes are higher.

As the community of backcountry users grows exponentially, professionals have increasingly noticed higher numbers of accidents and fatalities in the backcountry. “We’re not in the backcountry alone anymore.” Drew says. “We share all of this passion with everyone else who’s headed into the mountains. So any mistake by any of us has significant repercussions on the communities at large.”
IN ORDER TO COUNTERACT THIS TREND of increasing accidents, Drew is pouring his energy into championing a backcountry code of ethics. The code relies on three fundamentals: knowledge, awareness and wisdom. Drew maintains that backcountry users must have knowledge of the current avalanche conditions and the knowledge to pull off their own rescue. They must have awareness of other user groups and backcountry parties, awareness of the skiers above them, the snowshoers in the drainage below and the many cars passing along the highway beneath their run. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, backcountry users must have the wisdom to know whether or not they are putting other parties at risk.

“If we do nothing to offset the trend of increasing accidents, when a skier triggers an avalanche that runs down across the open road and knocks that school bus full of kids into the creek, if we’ve done nothing, then what can we say?”

At the end of nearly every day spent forecasting, Drew drives down Big Cottonwood, back to his house and his family. “I feel very honored to have sewn my life together with something that I feel gives back to the communities of people in the mountains,” he says.

He knows that the work he does can only inform people whose decisions are ultimately made from emotion, not logic, people who have a different level of acceptable risk than he does. He can’t control what they do with his report. But even so, it is worth it.

Words: Shey Kiester
Photography: Mattias Fredriksson
Videography: Spindle

Drew is pouring his energy into championing
a backcountry code of ethics.

“I feel very honored to have sewn my life together with something that I feel gives back to the communities of people in the mountains.”